Bill T. Jones Brings His Tribute to His Mother-in-Law, a World War II Survivor, to YBCA

Legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones has a warm relationship with his mother-in-law, Dora Amelan, a French-Jewish survivor of World War II, who calls him her third son, along with her two biological ones.

Jones decribes Amelan, who was a nurse and social worker, as a great raconteur. He loves hearing her stories, and one in particular about when she was 19 years old made a big impression on him.

“The Germans were coming into Antwerp, and her mother was stricken with cancer. She was the oldest of three and had to run to get painkiller for her mother,” he said. “She says she remembers thinking there were two kinds of people – those who need help and those who give help, and she decided to be one of the ones who give help. That was gripping to me, and that’s where I started.”

[jump] What Jones a MacArthur Genius probably best known for best known for his work, Still/Here dealing with AIDS, started was an oral history for his husband and collaborator, Bjorn Amelan, Dora’s son. Jones describes Dora as an exotic French Jewish woman who likes her glass of wine- a generous person, but also reserved. She hadn’t shared all the stories she started telling Jones about the war with her sons when they were growing up.

“She and her husband didn’t talk much about the past because they were so busy building the future,” Jones said. “I said to her, ‘Talk me through the war,” but nothing is so linear, and she had to go way back.”

Jones was thinking about trying to do a work on something based on W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, where the characters are WWII survivors. He decided that he had a character in Dora, close to his life and heart, and made Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, coming to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this month. The piece is part of Analogy: A Trilogy, all exploring how text, storytelling and movement work together, and all three of the stories look at the nature of services and what constitutes a life well lived. 

In more than 25 episodes, the nine dancers of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company tell Amelan’s harrowing story of her early life in Belgium; her mother’s death when the Nazis were marching in; the loss of other family members; the journey to France, and her experiences working with an underground Jewish organization in Vichy France’s internment camps, Gurs & Rivesaltes.

The piece uses the interview format between Jones and Amelan with the dancers speaking and singing. The dancers rearrange sets designed by Bjorn Amelan to create various backdrops, including a railway, barracks and a hotel. There’s music from Shubert, and songs from the period of the war.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, chief of program and pedagogy at YBCA, says they couldn’t pass up a chance to work with Jones, who was at YBCA in 2014 for the company’s 30-year retrospective. Joseph will interview Jones at the Impact Hub Oakland about Analogy: Dora/Tramontane the night before the show starts. The two are collaborating with composer Daniel Roumain on a hip hop opera for Opera Philadelphia, We Shall Not Be Moved, about MOVE, a black liberation group the Philadelphia police bombed after an armed
standoff in 1985.

In spite of everything she went through, his mother-in-law isn’t angry or resentful, Jones says. Instead she lived a wonderful, productive life.

“With their two boys, they never hid from them what happened, but that’s not the world they wanted to give them,” he said. “They wanted to give them music and art and food and culture and possibility. It was a loving gesture.”

Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, March 10-13, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard, $25-$40, 415-978-2787

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